The Beguiled– A Film Review by: Jennifer Parker
by Jennifer ParkerJune 30, 2017
A wounded soldier who is impossibly handsome and has an adorable Irish accent is shacking up with seven women who seem exasperated about doing everything for themselves. The Civil War is in year three. Most of their friends have left, brothers and fathers are dead, most of them have nowhere else to go. Y chromosomes are titillating when the high point of the day is conjugating the verb to be in French. The Beguiled is the tale of an injured Union mercenary, Corporal John McBurney, who seduces several of the inhabitants at The Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, only to sire strife and become the victim of their collective fury. The 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan has now been adapted twice into films. The first, by Don Sigel in 1971 starring Clint Eastwood. The latter by Sofia Coppola staring Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell.
There are fairytale elements that would do the Brothers Grimm proud. The setting is a castle–like Southern Gothic mansion in rural Virginia, there is the requisite overgrowth of foliage in the form of roses and Spanish moss. The actual use of real film and vintage lenses enhances the almost illustrated quality of the movie. A young girl, Amy (Oona Laurance) goes into the woods searching for mushrooms and meets a stranger in distress, she brings him home only to discover that he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He casts a spell on the home which can only be broken by the very thing the girl was looking for in the woods in the first place. The women are all a little bit Cinderella by day–– having to keep up with drudgery of the Gothic mansion and grounds. By night, they transform into fairy princesses, dine by candle light and don beautiful gowns hoping to catch the eye of their new–found prince.
Then there’s the elephant in the room, or at least buzzing around the internet that Ms. Coppola “whitewashed” the film by omitting the slave character, Hattie, played by the talented actress and producer, Mae Mercer in the original film. Edwina who is a free mixed race teenager in the novel is now a white school teacher played by the lovely, Kirsten Dunst. The line that is getting our politically correct corsets in a bunch is “The slaves left.” Must you have a slave to tell a story about captivity, jealousy, bad behavior and poor choices in a Civil War period film? I’m going say no, for the simple reason that The Beguiled is a movie and not a docudrama or civics lesson about the bloodiest war on American soil.
It is possible that Cullinan made an artistic choice to include a slave narrative in the novel. Not all households had slaves because human beings are resources that require ongoing maintenance. Once a household is foraging for food in the woods keeping slaves is not sustainable. As an artist and as a filmmaker, Sofia Coppola has the right to make whatever film she wants to make. Having a Black slave within the confines of the Farnsworth Seminary is not germane to telling the story. The story is more about the moral choices people make, free or otherwise, shackled by life circumstances than it is a Civil War story. To put it in context, on September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which would go into effect on January 1, 1863. Eleven months later, Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address. Since The Beguiled is set three years into the war, it is conceivable that slaves who may have been part of the property had left by the time the story begins.
Kirsten Dunst as Edwina and Colin Farrell as John McBurney in Focus Features' atmospheric thriller THE BEGUILED. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
It’s no wonder Miss Edwina feels the weight of the Seminary on her shoulders. She’s basically stuck in a job that she hates with no hope for upward mobility, no romantic prospects, surrounded by a bunch of ungrateful teenagers. Dunst is subtle, she must be or she would be a caricature of a spinster schoolmarm. Her body wants to betray her but Miss Edwina has years of practice controlling her emotions, until she is under McBurney’s spell. Edwina carries herself a little straighter, takes a bit more care with her appearance and bares a little shoulder at the dinner table. Her counterpoint is Miss Alicia, the oldest of the students played by Elle Fanning. She is pure teenager, in the best way possible and the reason why boarding schools were invented in the first place. 2
The cinematography is spellbinding. So much is filmed with candles and natural light. The effect is ethereal, almost other worldly. The sound design borders on reserved but it works. It is mostly the natural sounds of cicadas relentlessly chirping with the distant reminder of war with the regular boom of firing canons. The costumes are achingly gorgeous. Coppola won the prize for best director at Cannes for The Beguiled, Palme d’Or. I think that it is worth acknowledging that Ms. Coppola is the second woman in the festival’s seventy–year history to have done so. The first was French filmmaker, Agnès Varda in 2015.
I’m sure that Sofia Coppola gave a lot of thought about including the original slave character, Hallie, in her film. She's a strong character in the original adaptation of the novel. It is possible that Coppola felt it wasn’t her movie to make. Coppola told BuzzFeed News, “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” 3
Screenwriter and director Sofia Coppola on the set of Focus Features' atmospheric thriller THE BEGUILED. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
In 2017, we still see black bodies treated as if they are subhuman by our society. Police shootings of black men and boys is all too common, I can’t help thinking that proclaiming emancipation wasn’t enough. How did a so called Christian society have the chutzpah to import human beings against their will? For the sake of performing difficult work because it was too hard to do? They lacked the higher order critical thinking skills (not to mention a moral compass) to foresee that we, the people would be living with the consequences 400 years later. Hinging Coppola’s entire narrative of The Civil War on one line of dialogue,
1. Though, the setting is Virginia, the film was shot largely in Louisiana in the historic landmark, “Madewood.” Roughly a two-hour drive outside of New Orleans, Madewood was designed and built in the mid-19th century, although the Civil War would delay its completion. As in The Beguiled, the property was largely bypassed by the conflict itself. It is also well-situated against natural disasters; owner and proprietor Keith Marshall reports that “the walls are 24 inches of solid brick. (Focus Features)
2. Nicole Kidman has a convincing southern accent and is remarkable in her role as Miss Martha as is Colin Farrell as Corporal John Mcburney. Angourie Rice plays Jane, Addison Riecke plays Marie and Emma Howard is Emily.